When Justin Hall took over as Estate Winemaker at Nk’Mip Cellars in June 2021, he decided he wasn’t going to mess with success. Under his predecessor, Randy Picton, with whom Hall had worked closely since 2004, the winery won awards and acclaim both in Canada and internationally. It was North America’s first Indigenous winery.
“I said to myself, don’t change anything for maybe even the first two years,” Hall said. “Make sure that the brand is consistent.”
The last thing he wanted was for customers to taste when the winemaker changed.
Over the years, Hall often tasted wines with Picton to the point where their tastes mimicked each other’s.
“We always picked the same wine as our favourite,” he said. “And always the same one or two that were our least favourite in blind lineups. We tasted almost identically.”
Hall, now 40, and a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, has come a long way since he graduated from high school and studied to become an auto mechanic, dreaming of working on high-end cars like Ferraris. Reality hit when he realized he’d be spending years changing brakes and tires and when those around him saw him as free labour, wanting him to do their engine rebuilds for nothing.
He never imagined he would become a winemaker. He didn’t even like wine. He recalls tasting it as a youth and thinking it tasted like bubblegum and spitting it out. “I tried it again the next day and I still thought it was terrible,” he said. “But I found a Chardonnay and that was my first wine love. Oh, it was delicious.” His tastes have changed, and he now loves both reds and whites.
Before Nk’Mip Cellars began in 2002, the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) operated the Inkameep Vineyards north of Oliver. It was developed in the 1970s as a way to provide local employment for band members, who previously travelled to Washington state to pick fruit. Many vines died in the first winters, but they soon learned which plants would be most successful. In the 1970s, older vines in the Okanagan were being replaced with superior ones from Europe.
Okanagan wine pioneer Don Triggs approached OIB Chief Clarence Louie in the 1990s about the possibility of leasing OIB land to grow wine for Jackson-Triggs. Louie, always a shrewd businessman, agreed but with a stipulation – the band wanted to get its own winery as part of the deal.
“So they did a joint venture,” said Hall. “They built Nk’Mip Cellars together.”
That partnership has evolved over the years, with changes of ownership, into the present-day partnership with Arterra Wines Canada, which markets Nk’Mip Cellars along with its other brands.
The new winery was still in its infancy when Hall, who had been working seasonally at the golf course, approached Chief Louie about finding steadier work. Louie suggested the young Hall should try Nk’Mip Cellars. So Hall met winemaker Picton. Throughout the fall of 2003, Hall continued to call Picton almost weekly to see if anything opened up. Finally, in January 2004, another employee left, and Hall was given a chance.
He started at the very bottom – literally – in a position he once jokingly referred to as a “cellar rat.” One of his first tasks was to rack some barrels, which involved pressurizing them with nitrogen or carbon dioxide. “I didn’t put it in properly and it made this huge ‘BOOM’ noise, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get fired,’” Hall recalls. “I didn’t know, but it happens all the time.”
Despite this frightening beginning, Hall knew in a few days that he wanted to work in the wine industry. He soon contacted Okanagan College to enroll in the Winery Assistant and Viticulture program. This led to work and further study in large wineries in Australia and New Zealand, and at Lincoln University on New Zealand’s South Island.
In 2009, Hall returned to Nk’Mip Cellars, subsequently becoming Assistant Winemaker. Seven years later, he took on responsibility for all the white wines, while Picton continued with the reds until he left in June. In his role as Estate Winemaker, overseeing the blending of wines, Hall sees himself as a kind of artist. “I’ve never considered myself to be an artist,” he said. “I’m the farthest thing from it – until I realized that art isn’t just actual writing and hand drawn pictures. In my mind I see wine and can make it all fit together.”
An essential part of being a winemaker is knowing the characteristics of grapes that grow on different “terroirs,” the different soils, microclimates, and topography. The sunny slopes of the Osoyoos East Bench near the winery, for example, are conducive to bolder reds, such as Merlot. Often grapes of the same varietal, Syrah for example, are grown on different locations on the OIB lands, producing quite different flavours. The winemaker needs to know how to blend them to achieve the perfect end result.
The winery also produces popular blends such as Dreamcatcher and Talon, which combine several varietals to produce an exciting new taste.
Dreamcatcher, for example, started as a blend of Chenin Blanc and Riesling. When the winery found it couldn’t rely on the Chenin Blanc to offer the same quality every year, they tried other combinations to achieve a similar result. This meant substituting with Sauvignon Blanc and adding Ehrenfelser to maintain the “grassy” and mandarin orange character.
“The final wine is the balance where the winemaker sees where his wine should be,” said Hall. “Randy [Picton] taught me how to taste wines.”
Many of the wines reflect a proud Indigenous culture, both in their names and labels. “When you think of a dreamcatcher, there’s only one culture that has a dreamcatcher,” said Hall. “Talon fits in quite well because I think of an eagle’s claw, which is also fairly traditional. Our people love nature.”
The reserve tier, the premium wines, are marketed as Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt), which means “achieving excellence” in the Okanagan Syilx language. This excellence is achieved by knowing where to source the ideal grapes and being more selective in picking them, Hall explains.
From his start as a young man with Nk’Mip Cellars not long after its inception until his recent promotion to Estate Winemaker, Hall has watched the winery grow as he grew himself. “Being part of this winery for years now has really moulded me into the place,” says Hall. “Nk’Mip Cellars is as much a part of me as I am part of them. I know this building inside out. And I know where we’ve come from and where we’re going.”
1400 Rancher Creek Road
Osoyoos, BC V0H 1V6
Story and photos by Richard McGuire